Why we only listen to what we want to hear

Jul 02 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It might help to explain why you wrap up a meeting only to discover half the people around the table have come to completely different conclusions about what they are supposed to be doing to everyone else. It's because, in a world now awash with chatter and communication, we tend only to listen to the messages we want to hear and filter out the rest.

In research that might help to explain why a particular member of your team constantly under-performs or why your boss only seems to take on board half of what you say, the team of psychologists from the universities of Illinois and Florida have concluded that, while we now live and work in an environment filled with information, we filter out most of what we see and hear.

People, they argued, tend to avoid information that contradicts what they already think or believe.

At the same time there can be certain factors that can cause people to seek out, or at least consider, other points of view, it suggested.

The research, published in this month's Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association, analysed data from 91 studies involving nearly 8,000 participants.

It was focused on trying to reach a definitive answer to what has been a longstanding debate among psychologists over whether people actively avoid information that contradicts what they believe or whether they are simply exposed more often to ideas that conform to their own because they tend to be surrounded by like-minded people.

"We wanted to see exactly across the board to what extent people are willing to seek out the truth versus just stay comfortable with what they know," said University of Illinois psychology professor Dolores Albarracín, who led the study.

The research found that people were in general twice as likely to select information that supported their own point of view as to consider an opposing idea, with two thirds going for supportive views as opposed to a third going the other way.

Some people, particularly those with more close-minded personalities, were even more reluctant to expose themselves to differing perspectives.

They tended to opt for information that corresponded to their views nearly three quarters of the time, argued Albarracín.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people were more resistant to new points of view when their own ideas were associated with political, religious or ethical values.

"If you are really committed to your own attitude – for example, if you are a very committed Democrat – you are more likely to seek congenial information, that is, information that corresponds with your views," Albarracín said.

"If the issues concern moral values or politics, about 70 per cent of the time you will choose congenial information, versus about 60 per cent of the time if the issues are not related to values," she added.

Perhaps more surprisingly was the finding that people who have little confidence in their own beliefs were less likely to expose themselves to contrary views than people who were very confident in their own ideas. Certain factors could also induce people to seek out opposing points of view. Those who had publicly defend their ideas publicly, such as politicians, for example, tended to be more motivated to learn about the views of those who opposed them. In the process they sometimes found their own ideas evolving.

And, again possibly unsurprisingly, people were more likely to expose themselves to opposing ideas when they were useful to them in some way.

"If you're going to buy a house and you really like the house, you're still going to have it inspected," said Albarracín.

Similarly, no matter how much someone liked and trusted a particular surgeon, she suggested, it was more than likely that they would seek out a second opinion before scheduling a major operation.

And, for the most part, people tended to stay with their own beliefs and attitudes because changing them might prevent them from living the lives they were living, Albarracín concluded.

Getting your management message across is not impossible then but, if it is going against the tide, it's important to recognise it may need to be said more than once. "But it's good news that one out of three times, or close to that, they are willing to seek out the other side," added Albarracín.